The incident of Peter preaching to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, is a prime example of the gospel being received, in the book of Acts (chapters 10-11), by Gentiles.
But Acts 11:19-26 was probably just as significant for the gospel’s spread to the Gentiles. This reads: ‘Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the Word to no one but the Jews only.
‘But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
‘Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
‘Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch’. All this may well have begun before Peter’s encounter with Cornelius.
It is very interesting that this Acts 11 gospel expansion to the Gentiles was not an organised mission, but took place naturally as the church scattered following the death of Stephen.
In Acts, missionaries are sent out by churches and often seem to work to a discernible pattern. But that needs to be set alongside what we see here: numbers of believers ‘telling … the good news’, as they were scattered from Jerusalem and looked to settle elsewhere.
The responsibility and privilege of reaching out to others is not the preserve of pastors, evangelists and missionaries; it belongs to the whole church and we each have a responsibility to take it to heart.
These early believers shared the gospel naturally, as they travelled, set up home and worked. And there is nothing in the text to suggest that this was somehow unusual and not the norm.
It is, of course, right and good that churches and mission agencies partner in sending out gospel workers. It would be a betrayal of the Lord’s commission not to do so. But our responsibility is not simply to initiate ministries; it is also to be sensitive to and ‘catch up with’ what the Lord is already doing, in what we might think of as spontaneous, ‘unplanned’ ways. That was the reality faced here by the church in Jerusalem.
But an interesting question then arose. As the gospel spread among the Gentiles, how would the church in Jerusalem react? When Philip preached in Samaria in Acts 8, Peter and John were sent to authenticate the new work, to give it the apostolic imprimatur.
It seems that the church in Jerusalem and its leaders felt the need to assess and approve this gospel expansion. Given that in Acts 11 fully-fledged Gentiles are now being reached with the gospel, how will they react? Will it be with suspicion and a desire to control what is going on there?
What they did was send Barnabas to them. This time they sent one man, not two. And the man they sent wasn’t an apostle; he was a native of Cyprus, as were many of these new believers. He was a man of exceptional spirit, warm and encouraging. This wasn’t control and suspicion, but contribution and support for this young church.
The contribution made by Barnabas was not to impose forms and structures on this fledgling church, but to encourage them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts — a deeply pastoral concern that would have significant consequences for gospel witness (it was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called ‘Christians’, people of the Messiah).
The church at Jerusalem had the privilege of being the original one; the apostles were the authentic witnesses to the Lord Jesus and his gospel. But that doesn’t mean they must hereafter control everything that happens to spread the gospel.
It is the Lord Jesus who directs the mission; we are his co-workers. So instead of sending people to check out this new development, they instead chose to send a man who would cheer on those involved in it.
Sending Barnabas to Antioch was perhaps the greatest thing the church at Jerusalem ever did for their brothers and sisters there. He was an outstanding example of a Christian and what a gospel worker should be.
He wasn’t jealous of their work, nor did he want to take it over. He rejoiced in the work and encouraged them to keep going and remain true to the Lord. His concern was not sectarian (to make them Jews), but to strengthen their Christian life and witness.
And this humble man was ready to acknowledge that he didn’t have all the gifts necessary to help this church. So he went on a long, 200-mile round-trip to bring Saul to join him in the work.
He recognised the Lord’s calling of Saul (Paul) and the gifts he’d been given. What a great encouragement to Saul that must have been! And, in God’s providence, this almost incidental action had immense strategic significance for the whole progress of the gospel — it was from Antioch that Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the church into further mission.
This short account in Acts 11 is long on significance. God is at work, outside and before our (proper) plans for outreach. Fledgling churches need appropriate encouragement more than they need the approval of others. And actions that seem incidental and slight can have the most far-reaching consequences for gospel advance.
The author is minister at Pontefract Congregational Church and a member of the council of UFM Worldwide. He is married to Anna and has three children.